Q&A: Nobel Prize Winning Economist Amartya Sen on Reviving Nalanda University

 Indian Nobel Laureate and noted economist Amartya Sen delivers an address in New Delhi on  January 27, 2004. (Prakash Singh/AFP/Getty)

As an Indian Nobel Prize winning economist, philosopher and humanitarian, Amartya Sen is an intellectual force who needs little introduction. As a young boy, he was influenced by the suffering he witnessed during the 1943 Bengal Famine and the India-Pakistan partition. Sen has influenced the creation of the United Nations' Human Development Index and he has deepened and expanded discourse in fields ranging from social choice and welfare economics to human rights and justice. Sen sounded the alarm about Asia’s more than 100 million missing women and his highly influential books, including Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation, changed the way countries understand and prevent famine.

Now, Sen is spearheading the revival of the world's oldest university in Bihar, one of India's most impoverished states. Grounded in Buddhist teachings, Nalanda University offered subjects including astronomy, politics, medicine and fine arts. Nalanda housed more than 10,000 students from around the world before it was destroyed by Turkish Muslim invaders in 1197.

UPDATE: Sen's complete speech given at Asia Society on September 22nd on the Pan-Asian initiative and the relevance for Asia today is available here. Watch an exclusive interivew and read the Q&A below:


What was the original ethos behind Nalanda University?

Old Nalanda as an educational institution was fully dedicated to the pursuit of learning. It was committed to educational excellence. Indeed, because it was largely successful in achieving and maintaining excellence that Nalanda attracted foreign students — from China, Japan, Korea and elsewhere. The institution was Buddhist in terms of its foundation, but Nalanda’s teaching and research were not confined to Buddhist studies. Indeed, it was well-known also for what it offered in secular subjects such as health care, linguistics and astronomy. Nalanda received patronage from Hindu kings (such as the Guptas) as well as from Buddhist kings (such as the Palas of Bengal). It was not, in any sense, a specifically Buddhist institution, but it was in the general Buddhist tradition of focusing on knowledge and understanding as ways of solving problems that pester humanity. It was also a "modern" institution — modern in relation to its time — in offering education that went well beyond religion, and included science (such as astronomy) and the pursuit of practically useful arts (such as public health care).

What is your vision for its future?

Ever since I saw Nalanda for the first time as a child — I was completely bowled over by the vision it offered to humanity. I dreamt of bringing the great institution back to life, some day. As I continued to visit Nalanda, through my teenage years, the idea of an outstanding center for higher education at the great center of ancient Indian civilization, in Bihar, gripped me more and more. When Chief Minister Nitish Kumar approached me about helping them to build a new institution near the old site, I was impressed to see how close his own vision was to what I had hoped would happen one day. Indeed, I hope to see that dream being realized — at least the initial stages of it — before long. The fact that Bihar also has a lot of economic problems, including persistent poverty, makes it even more necessary for the new Nalanda to offer educational opportunities for the useful arts (such as information technology, environmental studies and management), without undermining the more abstract investigations.

There has been some surprise that the Dalai Lama is not involved with the planning of Nalanda. Can you comment on this?

I can understand that surprise, since the distinction between religious studies and the practice of religion is not well understood. When Oxford or Cambridge deliberates on education in what they call "divinity," they do not ask the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury to do the planning of religious education for them. They look for the best general advice they can get from educationists, and appoint experts in divinity in these academic posts. I do not doubt that when a professor of Buddhist studies is appointed at Nalanda, the occupant of that post would be very interested in the Dalai Lama's views, just as any professor of divinity in Oxford or Cambridge would tend to take note of the views of religious leaders.

It is perhaps a matter of interest that when my friend Bimal Matilal was interviewed for becoming the Spalding Professor of Eastern Religion and Ethics (a post that he held for many years with great distinction), he was asked by the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford whether he thought it was a limitation that he was not religious himself. Bimal told me that the Vice Chancellor very much agreed with him when he answered that this was neither here nor there, since he was supposed to educate people on the nature of – including beliefs and practices in — Eastern religions, rather than performing religious practices in his class.

How was the Vice-Chancellor of the Nalanda University chosen? What qualifications were the Nalanda Mentor Group looking for?

The post of the Vice-Chancellor is meant to be open to any of the member countries of the East Asia Summit, even though for the first Vice-Chancellor, the Nalanda Mentor Group had a preference for an Indian academic, with the practical ability to do things, to get the project moving. The four primary considerations that the selection committee had, on the basis of the deliberations of the Mentor Group, were: (1) academic excellence, (2) administrative ability, (3) interest in — and commitment to — the Nalanda university project, and (4) willingness to be based in the new campus in Nalanda to build an intellectual community there from scratch, and be fully involved with Bihar’s problems and concerns. Members of the selection committee talked with at least 20 people, sought their advice and also checked their own interest in being considered for the position, including living in Nalanda, as and when it becomes a functioning reality. From time to time, reports on these consultations somehow got leaked in the Indian newspapers (even though the consultations and ascertaining of interest in being a resident Vice-Chancellor have sometimes been confused, in these reports, as "offers" having been made to this person or that).

On the basis of all the information it had, the selection committee decided that the best feasible appointment would be Dr. Gopa Sabharwal, but it was willing to accept the possibility of appointing some other person from a list of three it gave to the Government of India. Dr. Sabharwal’s academic qualifications are excellent (one of our advisors on the academic side was Professor Andre Beteille, a world-renowned sociologist); her administrative ability is well established; she is totally committed to the Nalanda project; and her involvement with Bihar and willingness to be based in Nalanda contrasted sharply with some others who could have been considered for the position. The Nalanda Mentor Group, which was authorized to make the selection, listed three names, including that of Dr. Sabharwal, but the Government could have appointed anyone of the three. The Government offered Dr. Sabharwal the position of being Vice-Chancellor Designate, to be followed by being Vice-Chancellor as the legal formalities of the University are sorted out. The Mentor Group was very happy that she agreed to take on this job when she was approached. I understand in some parts of the media, questions have been raised about whether someone who was not a "full professor" should have been chosen to be the Vice-Chancellor.

I suppose an obsession with rank and status in our stratified society makes some people inclined to judge a person not by his or her qualities — and particular qualifications for a very specific job — but by the person’s position in the social hierarchy. I was amused to see the report that an economics professor, to whom no offer of a job has (to the best of my knowledge) been made, had declared that he would not serve under a Vice-Chancellor who came from a position "below" that of a professor. I take it that this economics professor would not have agreed to work in an institution led even by the great John Maynard Keynes, who too was not a professor at Cambridge University where he lectured. While no comparison is possible or intended, the issue here is the suitability of the person for a particular position, rather than going by antecedent rank.

Has the Vice-Chancellor Dr. Gopa Sabharwal started functioning, and what steps is she taking to get this big project off the ground?

Dr. Sabharwal has made an excellent beginning in setting up the campus, with the help of the Bihar government (who have been impeccably cooperative), and also in planning about the legal, administrative and academic arrangements. The first two faculties to be started will be environmental studies and historical studies, to be followed by others such as information technology and international relations. The work in setting up these faculties is very much on the way.

Nalanda University, under Dr. Sabharwal’s leadership, has also established reciprocal relations with Nalanda-Srivijaya Centre in Singapore and the Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, and at an informal level with the Peking University in China, through Professor Wang Bangwei of that University who, as an active member of the Mentor Group, has been involved in the planning of Nalanda. There will be a partnership with Korean and Japanese universities as also with leading American universities. These possibilities are now being explored.

The making of the architectural plans for the campus and the buildings is in high gear right now, along with securing and looking after the land that the Bihar government has given to the University. Unfortunately, Dr. Sabharwal still remains "Vice-Chancellor Designate" rather than being the actual Vice-Chancellor, because of administrative delays at the level of the Government of India, and this does hamper Dr. Sabharwal’s ability to discharge her duties even more efficiently. The Board of the Nalanda University very much hopes that these delays would soon come to an end, which would help her to do her job with even greater speed. The Nalanda University Act was passed in the Indian Parliament last November (in line with the recommendations of the Mentor Group), and it is anticipated that the administrative delays at the governmental level would soon cease.

How will the University be financially viable?

At the moment the bulk of the expenses are being met by the Government of India, through the Planning Commission, which is also helping in sorting out the administrative hurdles. There have been promises of contributions from abroad, both from governmental and non-governmental sources (from China, Singapore, Australia, Laos and elsewhere). But there is a long way to go in firming up the financial base of the University. Dr. Sabharwal recently visited Japan and explored Japanese interest in its long-standing connections with Nalanda. The next meeting of the Board will be held in Beijing in October. Mr. George Yeo, the former Foreign Minister of Singapore, is chairing the International Advisory Panel, and their work will also contribute to making Nalanda University known in the world.

What impact could Nalanda have on Asia’s influence on the world and on global higher education?

Old Nalanda was a remarkable example of pan-Asian cooperation in education and intellectual pursuits. Teaching and research in Nalanda was not confined to religious studies only, and it was very much linked with practical knowledge and applied sciences. And it was a reflection of the state of the art at that time. The new Nalanda University will be contemporary in the same sense, but today’s contemporary concerns include such subjects as information technology and recent hazards faced by the environment. There is a real need for pan-Asian cooperation in these fields, and as the University gets going and expands, it would be able to make an increasingly larger contribution to addressing these concerns. Global intellectual pursuits are often seen as a West-led phenomenon, and indeed the Western universities have done very impressive work in creating a global academia. But it is worth remembering that when the oldest European university, the University of Bologna, was born, Nalanda as an educational establishment was already seven hundred years old. It attracted students from all over Asia, and one hopes a similar network will gradually emerge as the new Nalanda University establishes its academic excellence in global standards.

Why is Nalanda University important for Bihar?

Bihar was the center of Indian civilization for over a thousand years. It was from Pataliputra, or Patna, that the first all-India empire was established. It was in Bihar that the first Buddhist councils met, and established a remarkable model of taking decisions through public discussion, which is central to the practice of democracy. It is in Bihar that the earliest public health care systems in India were established, on which Faxian reported in the early years of the fifth century, and on which Yi Jing wrote in the seventh century, after completing his education in Nalanda. It was in Kusumpur, in Pataliputra, where early Indian mathematicians congregated. Bihar may have become a backward state in the modern world, but it has had a glorious history, which can inspire educational work in contemporary — and rapidly regenerating — Bihar.

This was certainly part of the consideration in the mind of the Bihar government when they initiated the Nalanda project. The new Nalanda University is fully committed to contribute to this grand revival. Nalanda will not, however, be concerned only with purely academic education. The focus on such practical subjects as information technology and environmental studies will have tangible consequences on the lives and earnings of the people of Bihar. As the University expands, with more secure funding, the opportunity of having a local impact will increase, along with the enhancement of all-India benefits and pan-Asian cooperation. Bihar has been very supportive of Nalanda, and we want to make sure that Nalanda, in its turn, will be equally supportive of Bihar.

Related links:
2004 AsiaSociety.org interview with Amartya Sen
Amartya Sen at AsiaSociety Northern California, 2010

About the Author

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Shreeya Sinha is an award-winning Journalist, Multimedia Producer and Social Media Editor for Asia Society. She was raised in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and India.